Since this weekend (August fourth through the seventh) is the annual “Last Escape of Billy the Kid Pageant,” I thought I would share some little known information, from folks who lived in those days and knew Billy personally. My cousin’s wife, (Donna Sallee) who lives in Artesia, is the great-granddaughter of Jose Maria de Aguayo, who witnessed the Lincoln County Wars, and was there when it happened. Donna has shared her family treasures with me, some of which are news articles, letters, and testimonies. The news articles have no identifying information from which newspaper, or dates, but most likely they came from Alamogordo.
The following story is told by Donna’s grandfather:
Billy the Kid tale told by pioneer
They tell more lies about Billy than they do the truth, says Harry Aguayo of La Luz, who remembers Billy the Kid and his pals who rode in the Lincoln County War.
Aguayo, now 82 and retired from a lifetime of ranching, Thursday, recalled the turbulent days of the past century on the eve of the annual Billy the Kid pageant in Old Lincoln, when the descendants of those men who lived through those blazing days gather to nourish their memories.
In recalling his recollection of the buck-toothed desperado, Aguayo described what he says is the true story of Billy’s escape from the Lincoln County courthouse and the killing of J.W. Bell and Bob Ollinger, which forms the basis for the Lincoln County pageant.
“I’m going to straighten out a few things,” Aguayo said, relaxing in his comfortable La Luz home. “I didn’t see this happen, but it was told to me by the man who gave Billy the gun he used in the escape –– Billy’s true friend then, and a good friend of mine later.
Aguayo recalled that the usual story of the escape places Billy and Bell playing cards. When Bell dropped a card, Billy snatched his gun from the scabbard and killed both Bell and Ollinger, his jailers.
This is the version used in the Lincoln pageant.
“Now this is what really happened,” Aguayo said, his memory sharp as it was in the days when he first heard the story from the Kid’s pal.
“This man went to visit Billy in the jail where he was waiting to be hung and he told Billy, “I’ll put a gun for you in that new outhouse, up on a 2×4 where it won’t be found.”
Billy said, “good.”
“Now on the day they had agreed on, when Ollinger called the prisoners out to go over to the hotel for dinner, Billy wouldn’t go –– said he was sick,” Aguayo continued.
“Ollinger told Bell to stay with Billy, and Ollinger took the other prisoners to the hotel across the main street of Lincoln. Bell allowed Billy to go to the outbuilding alone while he waited at the courthouse door. Billy found the pistol just as his friend had promised and put it in his pants.
“Billy came back to the door and Bell let him in,” continued Aguayo, living again, a vivid moment of the past.
While Bell locked the door, Billy went past him upstairs. He made it the top in two jumps –– he was quick as a cat –– and turned and killed Bell with two shots.”
Bullet holes are still visible at the turn of the stairs in the old Lincoln County Courthouse, where tradition has placed Bell’s death.
“Then Billy got a shotgun from a room upstairs and went to a front window to wait for Ollinger,” Aguayo went on.
“Ollinger, thinking Bell had shot Billy, left the prisoners and ran back across the street. When he was close enough, Billy called to him and killed him when he looked up.
“Ollinger yelled, ‘He shot me too’ and fell dead.
“There was an old stable hand there and Billy made him cut off his leg irons and get him a horse –– a fat little black, belonging to the county officials,” Aguayo recalled from his friend’s story.
Just rode off
“Billy just went out, got on the horse, and rode off, waving his hat to the crowd that had gathered.”
Aguayo said the Kid was a frequent visitor to his father’s house when Aguayo was a youngster.
“He was just a slim, small man who acted like he never had a care in the world,” he reminisced. “He had worlds of friends, and could play and sing like a mockingbird.”
“Billy was an outlaw, but he never was bad,” said Harry, defending his friend of so long ago.
Jose Maria Aguayo’s witness answers, when testifying about the shootout:
My name is Jose Maria de Aguayo, my residence is Lincoln. My profession, farming.
State: Where were you in the month of July last, 1878?
I was in the town of Lincoln.
State: Were you there at the time of the fight between the sheriffs posse and the party called the McSween party?
State: Do you know what date it commenced?
The fighting commenced on July 15 last, at about 3 or 4 p.m.
State: What do you know of the circumstances attending the fight as you observed it?
On Monday, July 15, in the morning as I was returning to my house from a place about 500 yards away to which I had gone, I heard a voice say as I turned around the corner of the house, “Hit him,” and another voice said, “Don’t, it’s Mr. Jose’ Maria! From what I could tell there were people in the house, Mr. Montana’s house. I went immediately in the house of John W. Wilson, the Alcalde, to learn the news.
State: You say the fight commenced on the 15th of July, last?
State about the fight, the manner in which it was conducted, it’s progress, etc.
The party which was called the “McSween party” was in three different houses. They had been in the these houses since sun up on the 15th. The party which was called the sheriff’s party were all out of town, except five or six of them who were in the round tower, in the vicinity of Captain Baca’s house. Those who were in the different houses –– at least those I could see the best in Montana’s house –– we’re making portals. About 3 or 4 o’clock in the evening, the sheriff’s posse that was out of town, came into town, by coming down the river and onto the street by Murphy’s house. At that moment the firing commenced. I did not see exactly what transpired between these parties, except some men –– four men I saw coming out of Montana’s house and shot towards the round tower.
State: How long was the firing kept up that day?
Until it got dark.
State: From what directions?
The shooting that I saw from Montana’s house and some shooting from the house of a woman by the name of Schon.
State: Where was the house of Schon and what party occupied it? It is near the house of McSween. The sheriff’s posse was shooting from there.
State: Did you hear any firing from any other part of the town?
Up to that night I did not.
State: What occurred the next day?
Nothing except that a good many of the families left town, leaving only about 12 families in the town.
State: Was there any fighting the next day? If so, how early did it commence and how long did it continue?
They commenced fighting very early in the morning, and the firing lasted all day until night.
State: From what part of town did the firing proceed?
On Tuesday the 16th, the firing was kept until dark. On Wednesday the 17th, the firing commenced from all directions in town –– Mr. McSween’s house, towards the hills, and towards the round tower, and from the hills they were firing back.
State: How early did the firing commence and how long did it continue on that day?
It commenced about 5 o’clock in the morning and lasted until late at night.
State: What followed on the 18th?
On the 18th the fight was kept up until 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning. Mr. Baca sent for me.
State: In what situation where the inhabitants of Lincoln placed by the fighting on the days you have mentioned?
The situation of the inhabitants was very much compromised and very sorrowful. They were all possessed of terror. The situation was so compromising that the families who were there, had to remain there because they had no means of transportation, especially those of Captain Baca and myself.
State: What was the condition of the families of Lincoln in respect to going about their business on these days, and the ordinary concerns of life?
During the five days of war, none of the people occupied themselves in their daily labors. You could not see in the town, any person, except for ‘black Joe’ and myself.
State: What did the people do in respect to keeping in their houses or going out?
I never saw any person during those five days outside of their doors in the daytime.
State: You said your children were crying and were hungry. Why was this?
Because 300 to 400 bullets were flying all the time every day through town and the stores were closed and persons could not go to the store to buy anything.
State: What had been the condition of Lincoln County, and particularly the town of Lincoln, for three or four weeks prior to the commencement of the fight?
From the 17th of June, the conduct of the parties fighting was scandalous. They had two or three fights over on the Ruidoso and on 11th of July a party of 50 or 60 men approached the town of Lincoln acting in such a manner as to seem to dare the other party to come out and fight them.
State: State where they went into camp.
They camped in front of Montana’s house, in the rear of the foundation of the church.
State: State about what time the troops arrived and went into camp.
About 9 o’clock in the morning they arrived in town and making up immediately.
State: Do you know John B. Wilson, a Justice of the Peace in the town of Lincoln?
Yes sir, I know him perfectly well.
State: Did you see him the day the troops arrived in Lincoln? If so state when and where you first saw him that day.
At 9 o’clock in the morning I saw the troops come into town and passed down the main street with a piece of artillery. The camp was made. I was standing near my house. Wilson came to me.
State: What conversation did you have with him?
After the troops had camped, Wilson came to me and asked me what he should do about the demand of the officers who had asked for a warrant to arrest McSween and some men of his party for having shot at a United States soldier on the 17th. I told him that if they had a proper affidavit before him, he could not refuse to issue the warrant.
He then went into his office and I followed behind him. There were just the two of us in the office. He commenced to write. I do not know what. About 10 minutes afterwards, three officers came in –– if I mistake not, Dr. Appel, Captain Blair, and another I did not know. At the same time Captain Baca came in. The officers held up the right hands to be sworn. Then the officers left and went towards the camp.
A few minutes afterwards, Wilson left the office with a paper in his hand and went toward the camp. About 25 steps from the office he met Captain Baca. I don’t know what they spoke. Immediately afterwards he met Peppin and gave him the paper. Wilson did not go to the camp. I did not see him again on the 19th, but I saw him on the 20th in the morning.
Billy the Kid has been dead more than 70 years but his friend still speaks up in his defense.
Another old timer has chimed in to agree with Harry Aguayo that Billy the Kid shot his way out of the Lincoln County jail, not with J. W. Bell’s gun as is commonly told, but with a cached in the outhouse.
Frank Phillips, 91, of Alamogordo, also knew Billy well, and considered him a friend.
“I wasn’t there when Billy shot his way out of the courthouse where Bob Ollinger and Bell we’re holding him, but I know old Harry Aguayo, and I was told years ago that a pistol was hidden in that outhouse for Billy,” Phillips confirmed Aguayo’s story.
“And the man who did it was a friend of Aguayo’s too,” said Phillips. “I’m sure that is the way it happened.”
“So many lies have been told about Billy the Kid that you can’t believe most of the stories,” continued Phillips, who rode the cattle ranges here before the Alamogordo was founded.
“Billy wasn’t a bad man,” exclaimed Philips. “I knew him for several years, and I never knew anyone more ready to help a friend or a stranger. Several men have told me how they met Billy for the first time on the trail somewhere and were dead broke when he gave them more than enough to get where they were going.”
Current stories tell that Billy wasn’t really fast with a gun, but old Phillips, an eyewitness to some of the shooting that Billy did doesn’t agree.
“He was fast and he really could shoot straight.
“I’ve seen him bounce a tin can from the ground with one shot and hit it with a shot from his other gun before it hit the ground,” said the old cowpoke.
“You know that Billy was first brought to Lincoln by his mother before they settled over on the Rio Grande. Well, Billy worked for old John Chisum when he was just a youngster. He made a trail drive with the Chisum crew to Wichita, Kansas, and that was where Billy first met Ollinger.
“Soon as they got back from the drive Billy quit. He told Chisum that Bob Ollinger had picked on him through the whole drive.
“He worked for a short time on the Pete Maxwell ranch, and then moved west with his mother to San Michael, I think. His stepfather, who was a blacksmith, found a better job there.
“All of the boys around there called him Bonney, in those days. Billy and four others spent a lot of time in a cave they had found in the hills about a mile and a half above town.
“The way Billy told me, his stepdad was pretty rough on Billy’s mother. Billy threatened to kill him once for slapping her.
“One day as Billy and his four friends were leaving to go up to their cave and spend a few days, one of boys who had lagged behind told Billy that he had heard his mother scream.
“Billy ran back to the house and talked with his mother for a few minutes, and then he slipped and went down to the blacksmith shop.
“Billy had an old bulldog six shooter, and that was what he shot his stepdad with. When the stepdad fell behind the anvil dead, Billy left for the hills with his four friends. He hid out in the cave for several days.
“The other boys took food to Bonney, as they called him, and refused to tell where he was hid out. There was a big ‘to-do’ with some people wanting to hang ‘that Bonney kid.’
“They searched for days without finding him.
“I’ve talked to the men who knew Billy very well and most of them think that many stories about Billy the Kid were just made up after he was shot.
“Take old George Coe, for instance, he told me that he seriously doubted that Billy had killed 21 men, and that is one of the most common stories.
“He wasn’t bad, Billy the Kid was forced into doing what he did.” according to Phillips.
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.